What, how often and with whom?

Lawrence Stone

In the early Eighties, Western governments, notably those of America, Britain and France, were anxious to assess the probable rate of growth and pathways of infection of Aids. They sponsored extensive sex surveys in order to find out, for example, the number of sexual partners an average male had in his lifetime and how many used safe sex. The British survey was carried out by four women, primarily trained in medical statistics, epidemiology and health care. The American survey was carried out by four men, primarily trained in sociology. The purposes, methods and conclusions of the two surveys are much the same, although the British one is more directly focused on assessing risks of the spread of Aids and asks a rather different set of questions.

The American survey appears, mysteriously, in two forms: one for scholars and one for the general public, written by most, but not all, of the same authors. The scholarly version is careful and may be better sociology, but is almost unreadable, being choked with platitudinous and pompous social sciences language, much of which means absolutely nothing:

Overall, these profiles of sexual expression suggest that the interests and resources associated with specific social locations lead to diverse manifestations of sexual expression.

Although presented in isolation from their behavioural context, these practices must be seen as moments in the various sexual scripts that render them meaningful.

Age, for instance, was curvilinearly related to the appeal of vaginal intercourse.

Only sociologists could contrive to make such a gripping subject as sexuality so very hard to understand. This is presumably why the more popular version of the survey was published at the same time – a unique publication ploy, so far as I know.

Until very recently, the insuperable obstacle for those asked to reveal embarrassing information about their sex lives to strangers was modesty or prudery. All but the libertines, eager to boast of their prowess, flatly refused either to fill in a questionnaire or to answer a set of questions put by a trained investigator. Assurances of confidentiality were not believed. This natural reluctance was reinforced by the stress placed by Christian churches for the last thousand years on the sinfulness and shamefulness of sex. The poll-takers were baffled, since only a tiny handful, composed of the sexually most liberated sectors of society, would volunteer to speak frankly, and they were by definition not at all typical of the majority. Back in the Forties, Alfred Kinsey recruited his informants from gaols, mental asylums and the University of Indiana in Bloomington; post-1970 authors, like Shere Hite, from readers of sexually-oriented magazines like Playboy and Penthouse. Even so, within these already biased samples, fewer than 6 per cent of those invited agreed to participate. That two fundamental sampling errors wrecked these earlier attempts to investigate sex in America was repeatedly pointed out in scholarly reviews at the time. By way of contrast, the new US survey had an acceptance rate of 80 per cent, and the new British one of 70 per cent, both taken from genuinely random samples. The volunteer trap has at last been broken.

It is disturbing, however, to find that 21 per cent of the respondents in the new American survey were interviewed with other people – usually sexual partners or children – present in the room. This is surely undesirable given the intimate nature of the questions asked, about matters such as masturbation, fornication, adultery, sodomy and the number of sex partners. That it affected the results is proved: the presence of others led to a dramatic fall from 17 per cent to 5 per cent of the sample who admitted to having more than one sex partner in the previous year. The major weakness of the American report, however, is that the sample, a mere 3400 respondents, is too small. For example, the data on homosexuality are based on a sample of only the 150 women and 143 men who reported any same-gender sexuality.

Originally designed by the Government in order to throw light on the spread of Aids, the survey was broadened in its scope by over-enthusiastic investigators. This was revealed by the ever-watchful Senator Helms who, in a Congressional Committee, pounced on items in the questionnaire relating to masturbation, which clearly bore no relation to Aids. Efforts to mollify him failed, and he persuaded the Senate to cancel funding of the project. The investigators had been planning for a sample of 20,000, like that of Kinsey, and the recent studies in Britain and France. But the loss of official support in Congress, and limited success in raising donations from private foundations, forced a reduction of the sample to 3400, which the authors admit ‘is clearly inadequate for in-depth analysis of the smaller sub-populations of interest’.

Similarly, Mrs Thatcher managed for a while to deprive the British survey of public funds, forcing it to turn to charitable foundations. But the full project, with a sample of 19,000, was kept going by a single trust, and after the fall of Mrs Thatcher, government support was renewed. Conservatives in both Britain and the US argued that the surveys were an invasion of privacy – which they were; that they were unlikely to produce reliable results; and that they were not exclusively focused on the spread of Aids, as was intended. The hidden objection was a fear that the revelation of true statistical norms about sexual behaviour could adversely influence moral values.

The first major effort to produce scientifically more or less reliable statistics about sexual beliefs, behaviour and the mechanics of sexual relations was the work of Kinsey, whose data have until recently been widely accepted as accurate, despite devastating reviews at the time in the scientific journals. Kinsey’s most serious mistake, in terms of its political and social consequences, was the claim that 10 per cent of American males were homosexual: a claim supported forty years later by Shere Hite, who, using equally biased data, came up with a figure of 9 per cent exclusively homosexual and 2 per cent bisexual. Another recent American survey asked how many of the adult population engaged regularly or frequently in homosexual activity, and also concluded that the most reliable figures were 9 per cent for men and 5 per cent for women. All the new, more scientific surveys, carried out either by the US Government or by reputable social scientists, disagree sharply with these findings, as do recent government surveys in Europe.

These false figures have had major political consequences, since 10 per cent of the population, most of whom can be relied on to vote, form a constituency to be courted by politicians. If President Clinton had known that the true figure for homosexuals in US society at large is only 2-3 per cent, heavily concentrated in a few big cities like San Francisco and New York, it is very unlikely that he would have taken the risk of inaugurating his Presidency by promising to admit homosexuals into the military, an act which, whatever its moral and practical merits, caused an immediate firestorm in the military and did him lasting political harm.

It is reassuring, however, that, on occasions when they can be compared with those of the earlier government-sponsored General Social Survey or the National Survey of Families and Households, the new American data turn out to be very similar. The new data for Britain, also, are close to the American ones.

A disturbing aspect of both new surveys is their single-minded and reiterated claim that ‘the choices we make about our sex lives are dramatically affected by our social circumstances.’ Surely they are also influenced biologically by our genes, our hormones, and the innate behaviour patterns we share with our primate cousins, all of which the authors of both surveys blithely ignore. For example, is the well-documented infidelity of the male, as compared to the female, nature’s way of spreading his semen as widely as possible, so as to ensure his reproductive success?

The British and American surveys ask much the same questions. First, behaviour: what do people do? How often do they do it? Whom do they do it with? Second, attitudes towards such matters as premarital sex, extramarital sex, homosexuality, masturbation, forced sex, group sex, voyeurism, giving or receiving oral or anal sex. Third, general sexual orientation and attitudes, which are grouped by the Americans into three broad clusters: the procreational cluster – meaning those who follow the official Roman Catholic teaching that sex is to be regarded almost entirely as a method of producing babies, and that all other uses and types of sex are immoral; the relational cluster – meaning those who treat sex as a component of married love and a support for monogamous unions; and the recreational cluster, meaning those who use sex as no more than a means of physical pleasure, to be obtained in any way that two adults find mutually satisfying. These three clusters are obviously arbitrary, but they offer a plausible way of grouping a wide range of approaches to sex. The rather surprising conclusion is that the vast majority of Americans – up to 80 per cent – fall into the middle, relational, category, with relatively few being either more traditional or more libertine.

The first major finding of both surveys is that there is a large mismatch between the sexual drives, preferences and potentialities of males and females. Vaginal intercourse is about the only thing both agree on finding appealing. Fifty-four per cent of American men, as compared to 19 per cent of women, think about sex at least once a day; 41 per cent of men, as compared with 16 per cent of women, have bought pornographic materials or sex toys in the last year. Masturbation is practised by about 60 per cent of males but only 40 per cent of females. Among the younger generation, aged 18 to 44, far more men find oral sex appealing than do women, about 80 per cent as against about 60; nearly half of men find group sex and voyeurism appealing, compared with a mere 10 to 20 per cent of women.

Even more striking is a major difference in achieving orgasm. Whereas almost all men achieve it through vaginal intercourse, nearly a third of all women usually fail to do so, and in consequence need clitoral stimulation to get them started. If this is true, then nature, which is exclusively concerned with increasing the quantity and quality of babies, blundered badly when it designed so patently inefficient a system. It was a blunder offset only by the erroneous belief, clung to for millennia in the West, that a female orgasm is necessary for conception.

Males and females also differ markedly about what they regard as sexual harassment, where there is a fine line between persuasion and force. In the light of the large claims made by ultra-feminists about male chauvinism and the similarity of normal intercourse to rape, it is interesting to find that forced sex is simply not part of the fantasy world of 98 per cent of men or women.

Although in both countries there is a very wide range of sexual practices and values, a large majority – about 80 per cent – think and behave in a very conservative, but mostly not intolerant, way. Both societies are still strongly committed to the fading ideal of the heterosexual, monogamous union, whether marriage or steady cohabitation, but have ceased to be censorious about sex before marriage. Only half of all American males reported enjoying watching their partners undress (this statistic seems hardly credible); and few are interested in any form of anal sex, sex with a stranger or group sex.

Women, much less interested in variety than men, think people should get married at about twenty-five, and that for as long as the marriage lasts, couples should remain sexually faithful to each other. They have intercourse with their spouses not more than about five to seven times a month. As the American authors conclude, ‘these findings give no support to the idea of a promiscuous society or of a dramatic sexual revolution reflected in a huge number of people with multiple casual sexual partners.’ The British data strongly support this conclusion.

A third finding concerns the ‘sexual revolution’ of the Sixties. The statistics suggest that it succeeded in changing both American and British attitudes and behaviour in important ways. First, it released speech, print and video-tapes from almost all restrictions relating to sex, so making possible the current explosion of pornography and frank talk in the media and the home. Second, it significantly reduced the role of the marriage-bonded family. It made sexual cohabitation socially and morally acceptable as a stage prior, or as an alternative, to formal marriage; and it caused a change in both moral attitudes and in the laws about divorce, which is now no more than a swift, cheap, morally neutral, no-fault administrative procedure. As a result, a half of all marriages in America and a third in England will today end in divorce. In addition, an unknown but large number of couples living in regular cohabitation split up without leaving a trace in the records. Third, the sexual revolution changed oral sex from an unusual practice to a normal and morally acceptable one, although the statistics indicate that the highly educated are more receptive to it than high-school drop-outs. The improvement in central heating and hygiene, with the installation of modern bathrooms, probably also played an important role in this development. Lastly, the Sixties revolution cleared away much of what was left of the 200-year panic about masturbation as not merely a shameful secret but also a serious threat to health.

In terms of attitudes, however, the Sixties revolution had no visible effect on strong moral opposition to adultery, one-night stands and homosexual activity. The post-Sixties generation shows little interest in the use of dildoes and vibrators, and is indifferent to other unusual sexual practices, which are confined to a fairly small libertine minority. The only exception is that well over 20 per cent in the US and 11 per cent in Britain have experienced marital anal intercourse, a surprising figure in view of the association of the practice with HIV. As for prostitutes, they would appear to have been driven almost out of business, because of the strength, size and tolerance of the amateur competition. In Britain, only 10 per cent of the older cohort of men and 2 per cent of the younger have ever paid for sex.

A critical variable in determining sexual attitudes is education: the higher the level of their education, the more sexually adventurous and tolerant men and women are likely to be. Although attendance at a boarding school leads to a good deal of teenage homosexual activity, it has little or no effect on lifetime orientation.

What we have, therefore, is the picture of a sexual world still wedded to earlier values of fidelity and honesty. British and Americans agree that sex is not the key to a good relationship, but that monogamous relations lead to better and more frequent sex. They have also discovered that the sex drive does not altogether wither with age. The good news is that happiness with monogamous sex appears to be merely one aspect, though perhaps a very important one, of a state of happiness with life in general. Which is the cause and which the result of this correlation is, of course, not known. What is new is the rise not in promiscuity but in cohabitation before marriage, which among wives has risen from 6 per cent to 65 per cent. The number of those with only a single sex partner from the age of 18 has hardly altered over decades. Life these days is too demanding for two working parents, busy commuting, providing and cooking food, and managing the care and transport of children, to allow much privacy or time for sex in marriage. Although a quarter of all Americans aged 30 to 49 admit to having had ten or more sex partners since the age of 18, as many as a half have had only one. Judging by this evidence, family values are alive and well among the majority of citizens of Britain and America. Conservatives can be reassured.

Or can they? What about the explosion of divorce? What about the flood of illegitimate children, especially those of teenage mothers? What about all the single-parent households being formed as a result of failed cohabitation, marital breakdown and the tide of teenage pregnancies? There is severe cognitive dissonance between the stories told to survey investigators about practices and moral attitudes and the hard facts of unprecedented levels of family disintegration. Millions, it seems, are preaching one thing and doing another.

As for the spread of Aids, the American authors, almost certainly over-optimistically, claim that in general ‘the epidemic seems to be on the wane,’ despite the fact that in 1993 it became the leading cause of death among males in the 25-34 age-group. The British survey is less optimistic – except for the remarkable spread in the use of condoms from 30 per cent to 70 per cent. Although only 2 per cent of British males said that they had had sex with a man in the past year, 40 per cent admitted to homosexual inclinations experienced exclusively before the age of 18. This suggests that bisexual play in adolescence is very common, but steady and exclusive homosexual practice in adulthood quite rare. Probably the most startling finding of the new surveys, indeed, concerns the limited amount of male homosexual activity, now reduced from about 10 per cent of the population to about 3 per cent. The new figures from both America and Europe suggest that, after the age of 18, it is statistically trivial in the population at large. These data do nothing, of course, to settle the debate over whether homosexual orientation has a genetic as well as a social component. The most likely conclusion at the moment is that both are involved, in proportions which are still not clear, and which probably vary from person to person.

The general picture the surveys provide is of societies composed of reassuringly prosaic and sexually conventional cores, with a defiantly deviant minority on one flank, and an angry and censorious minority on the other. This is a situation with which we can live, without fear of serious social or cultural disruption.